Time will tell if India's Hardik Pandya can emulate England's Ben Stokes or not

Karan Dewan 31/07/2017
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Pandya has drawn comparisons with Stoke.

No matter how much praise captain Virat Kohli heaped on his bowlers for earning those Sri Lankan wickets, and the truth is they didn’t come easy, an away Test win rarely comes as such a formality as it did in Galle.

After Shikhar Dhawan laid the foundations with a monumental knock on day one and Sri Lanka lost valuable batsman and fifth bowler Asela Gunaratne to a broken thumb (ruled out of the series), it was inevitable the Test would only have one outcome – an India win.

Cheteshwar Pujara’s hundred, Sri Lanka’s inexperience and naive shot-making, a Kohli ton and the Indian spinners wrapping it up with an entire day to spare, all then became regulation as the tourists sauntered to a 304-run victory.

As for the hosts, a blow to veteran Rangana Herath’s middle finger while fielding – it had to be his bowling hand – added insult to injury.

Sri Lanka will be indeed hoping their luck changes in the remaining two Tests – starting in Colombo on Thursday.

The fact India had to take 17 and not 20 wickets to go one-up in the series explains everything in itself. If that doesn’t, the fact it was India’s biggest-ever away win in terms of margin of victory, certainly does (their previous best being the 279-run triumph against England at Headingley 31 years ago).

For captain Herath and his men, it was their heaviest Test defeat and needless to say had him commenting post-match: “We are a better team than this.”

Amidst all of this, India think they have found an all-rounder in Hardik Pandya, who made his Test debut at Galle. The faith team management and captain placed in him was all too evident when he got the nod ahead of Chinaman Kuldeep Yadav, who had actually enjoyed a fine debut Test against Australia at Dharamsala earlier this year.

While the pitch wasn’t as favourable for a bowler like Pandya who likes to hit the deck hard, he still had a decent game.

What was absorbing to hear though, especially if you’re Pandya, were Kohli’s words in his press conference when asked about what the 23-year-old brings to the Men in Blue.

“First innings, he didn’t get the opportunity to bowl much but I think in the second innings, he bowled really nicely on a wicket that wasn’t offering much and he kept it in the right areas,” Kohli, who himself got back to form with an unbeaten ton, said.

“He used the bouncer well and bowls around 135kph, when he bends his back he can bowl faster. He is a great asset.”

Pandya bowled 10 overs in the Test and claimed the solitary wicket of Nuwan Pradeep. While his bowling was solid, the Mumbai Indians’ star’s batting spoke for itself. He hit five fours and three sixes in his 50-run knock from 49 balls, while having to refuse some runs, thanks to tail-enders at the other end.

It’s early days but there were signs Pandya will go on to play similar knocks in the future.

The newbie’s greatest challenge, and what he will face in the next couple of Tests, is the tag of becoming India’s all-important fifth bowler away from home. It’s perhaps a luxury position for most teams but it’s one that comes with plenty of scrutiny. Many teams face a similar dilemma though.

New Zealand, for example, have been searching for a pace bowling all-rounder and have given both Jimmy Neesham and Colin de Grandhomme a go, with not great rewards thus far.

South Africa too haven’t found someone as capable and skillful as the legendary Jacques Kallis. Faf du Plessis recently called Vernon Philander ‘the new Kallis’, but he’s some distance away from that privilege – despite his skill with the ball. Likewise, Chris Morris, the talented Proteas quick who at times can struggle for consistency.

For Australia, Mitchell Marsh has been trying for a while to revive his fortunes in Test cricket.

Ben Stokes

One of the world’s best: Stokes.

So that leads us to Ben Stokes, arguably the best Test all-rounder in world cricket, across all formats. And Kohli thinks Pandya can emulate Stokes in the future. Can he? Could he? Will he?

“When you play away from home, one guy [the all-rounder] gives you a lot of balance, and I think Hardik can be that guy going ahead, especially playing so much cricket away from home.

“If he grows in confidence – you see someone like Ben Stokes, what he does for England. An all-rounder brings great balance and I see no reason why Hardik Pandya can’t become that for India,” said Kohli.

While Pandya had his feet up after playing his maiden Test in Sri Lanka, Stokes delivered a Man-of-the-Match performance against South Africa, with his century turning the match in the hosts’ favour at the Oval. The Durham man claimed three wickets too and always seems to be involved in the key moments.

It’s too early to say whether Pandya can mirror Stokes in the coming years, but with continued backing from Kohli, there’s no reason why he can’t prove to be just as effective if he nails down that berth.

Stokes’ dogged approach has been key in sky-rocketing his stature and as for Pandya, we’ll have to wait and see as to what really drives him. Only time will tell.

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New England captain Joe Root must hope that Gary Ballance recall proves a success

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Joe Root has coped under siege from some of the world’s fastest bowlers but, as the newly anointed England captain, he is well and truly in the firing line now.

And the boy who hitherto can do no wrong will be fielding questions off the back foot all summer if his first big call does not pay off – the recall of Gary Ballance.

By all accounts Root’s influence is a key factor behind England’s decision to hand another chance to his Yorkshire chum Ballance, who was last seen in Test whites edging his way around Bangladesh.

That tour, which saw him scratch out 24 runs from four painful innings, was already his second bite at the cherry after struggling against Australian pace in 2015. If he does not show marked improvement against South Africa, and particularly speed king Kagiso Rabada, there is no way England will let him dock in Brisbane ahead of November’s (pencilled in for now) first Ashes Test.

But Ballance’s return is hardly Yorkshire cronyism in action. There are a heap of reasons why the left-hander has been favoured – 815 of them in fact.

That is the amount of runs that Ballance has scored in the County Championship this season – second only to the evergreen Kumar Sangakkara – having broadened his shoulders over the winter with the Yorkshire captaincy.

The 27-year-old needed to make that type of statement to turn a call-up from an improbability into a possibility. All Root has reportedly done is nudge him over the line.

But what happens if Ballance flounders at Lord’s this week? The decision to call him up in the first place will be lumbered upon Root rightly or wrongly. He will also be praised or pilloried for the batting line-up, the bowling choices, the body language, the fielding placements.

And in case he forgets, he still has his batting record to worry about as well. Now, for the first time in his career, Root’s burdens will extend beyond the next ball he faces at the crease.

The relevancy of a captain in many team sports can be debated but certainly not in cricket. When you are standing in a field for more than six hours a day the mind invariably wonders but while others will be thinking about what they are having for tea, Root will be scrutinising and second-guessing every decision he has made and is yet to make.

As far as previous England captains go, David Gower perhaps shares most with a happy-go-lucky Root in the personality stakes but even he was ground down – twice – by the nature of the beast.

“If your side is losing, then it can be very lonely,” Gower told The Telegraph in a recent interview. “You have these insidious little doubts. It takes you five overs to make a decision. And the reason it all ends in tears is that inevitably, at some stage, it gets too much.”

Gower was forced out for good in 1989 and his relationship with successor Graham Gooch rapidly declined. Ian Botham resigned during the Ashes. Kevin Pietersen quit after three Tests. Alastair Cook stepped down after a 4-0 thrashing to India. If this is the kind of fate that awaits Root, he must be mad.

But it would have been bonkers not to accept. The prestige of captaining your country and guiding it to victory is unparalleled – it is just that the negatives will be felt all the more acutely.

So in supporting the return of Ballance, Root is tied up in another sub-plot just as his first chapter as England captain begins. He can only hope it does not become the main story of his summer.

THIN EXCUSES FOR SRI LANKA WEIGHT PROBLEMS

Lasith Malinga is – quite literally – the biggest culprit of Sri Lanka’s fatness farce but you can have a certain amount of sympathy for his scathing assessment of the blazers in charge.

After Dayasiri Jaysekara, Sri Lanka’s sports minister, pointed out that the team was not fit enough, Malinga replied: “What does a monkey know about a parrot’s nesting hollow? This is like a monkey getting into a parrot’s nest and talking about it.”

The sympathy doesn’t rest in Malinga’s flimsy defence over his size, but that his bosses have only just woken up to the problem.

Just two players in the entire squad for the current series against Zimbabwe are thought to have passed an endurance test. While professional athletes should of course take some responsibility for their shape, why is it only now that the administrators have recognised the situation?

As elite sport increasingly uses technology to identify marginal gains – there have been tales of teams searching for the comfiest of pillows to ensure a good night’s sleep – that Sri Lankan standards have been allowed to slip so badly is a damning indictment.

The resignation of head coach Graham Ford last month will not fix a culture of laziness that is deeply embedded across the board, including the board.

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Pakistan in control of their destiny at Champions Trophy

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All action display: Hassan Ali.

There’s a word often used whenever sports team struggle. It’s thrown out there like all sports cliches but unlike so many other intangibles there is some truth to it. The idea of “identity” is one that resonates across sports and teams.

To be able to realize your full potential you ought to be able to understand who you are beforehand. Take the example of Pakistan: over the last fifteen years Pakistan have lost more than they’ve won against the top seven in international cricket in 14 years. There has only been one positive year in the time since Abdul Razzaq was the next big thing in world cricket.

Yet despite this Pakistan have continued to play like a “big team”; a team that believes that if it plays its own game, if it reaches its potential, it’ll beat all comers. And despite repeatedly being proven wrong, it’s something that stays in the Pakistani DNA. The realization that Pakistan has to play as a “small team” would require a lot of people to swallow their egos and put the collective over individual goals. That is as alien to Pakistan cricket as following a strict diet. The fact that every instance where the collective supercedes the individual (see: 1992) is seen as something miraculous – shows the sort of culture Pakistan cricket resides in.

In the Champions Trophy in England, Pakistan went into the first game as a big team, as a team that relied on talent rather than planning, and it came away humiliated. In normal circumstances that would’ve resulted in the dressing room spiraling out of control. But, in the first truly impressive result from Sarfraz Ahmed’s captaincy, Pakistan bounced back, and did so while realizing what they needed to do.

There is a template for Pakistan to follow. The easiest equivalent thrown about is Stephen Fleming’s New Zealand, but the cultural differences are so vast that any comparison seems unfair. The template that Pakistan ought to follow is that of Arjuna Ranatunga’s Sri Lanka team: a team that played as a “small team” yet conquered the world while doing so.

Over the second half of the 90s only South Africa and Australia had a better win-loss ratio than Sri Lanka. They did this while having only one of the eighteen batsman (with 20+ matches) in the world who averaged over 40 in this time, and only one of the twenty bowlers (with 20+ wickets) who averaged under 25. They became a top team with three world class individuals in Jayasuria, De Silva and Murali – and with consistent contributions from everyone else.

They succeeded despite a lack of talent by virtue of innovation and by playing as a collective. Perhaps the best example of that is that the Lankans were the first of the Asian teams to take fielding as seriously as non-Asian teams did – they became a more professional outfit than their neighbours, and they succeeded more than them because of that.

That’s what Pakistan needs to do now. To realize that there are ways out of a shortage of talent, but for that to happen they need to realize how to maximize what they have. And against South Africa, over and over again, Pakistan succeeded in that regard.

Perhaps the best possible way to understand how to plan correctly is to wonder what the other team wouldn’t want you to do. For instance, with cloud cover and the chance of swing on offer would Indian openers – who like to have a slow start – have preferred pace from both ends or Imad Wasim trying to contain by bowling wicket to wicket? Against India it was in these little things that Pakistan failed at consistently.

Then there was the case of Mohammad Hafeez, a man who has dismissed more left handers in his ODI career than right handers, despite the preponderance of the latter in the international game. Against India he did not bowl a single over, even though a left hander was on the crease for over 70 per cent of India’s innings. These were just two of the many mistakes that Pakistan made in their first game. Instead of trying to close the talent gap by planning better, Pakistan did everything to avoid doing that.

That wasn’t the case against South Africa though. Hafeez was there to bowl to left handers. He may not have finished with impressive figures but he was there to help Imad Wasim out as Pakistan wrested the control of the game early on. Imad himself was used as a containing option rather than a wicket taking one: just as South Africa wanted to increase the run rate after their start, just when Amla and de Kock are at their best, was when Imad was deployed. And it is when batsmen want to press on the accelerator that Imad’s nagging nothingness becomes most effective.

From thereon in the whole South Africa match seemed a rejection of the mistakes from the India game. In the end, Pakistan couldn’t even bowl Hasan Ali out – their standout bowler – because Junaid and Amir were bowling so well at the death. A far cry from the India game where each of the pacers were tonked, and the handling of overs was such that Imad Wasim ended up bowling the final over. Even the start from Fakhar Zaman showed that Pakistan were at least attempting to learn their lessons from the first game.

And then there was Pakistan’s fielding. It’s difficult to try and rationalize how a team can go from looking like amateurs to bordering on competency in the space of three days. Of course there is a mental aspect to it, and the overwhelming support from a rabid Edgbaston crowd played a part too, but after seeing Pakistan field like that, the same question keeps popping up: if they can do this once, why can’t they do it consistently?

Thus three days after being embarrassed Pakistan find themselves in control of their own destiny. Despite their overall record over the last fifteen years there’s been a general trend of a different Pakistan showing up for at least one of the games in an ICC tournament: there was the India game in 2009, there was Australia’s first World Cup loss in 12 years in 2011, and there was Pakistan blowing away South Africa in 2015. In each of these cases that match ended up being an outlier, but a glorious one at that. But even with that as the background, for the lowest ranked team in the competition to school the highest ranked team was not exactly predictable.

And now Pakistan can build upon this. And they can learn the lesson that opposition teams have tried to teach Pakistan for decades now: talent isn’t everything.

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